@

It started rather innocently with the man in calf-skin gloves.Swathed in a long, black coat, he had wedged himself in a corner over by the bestsellers like a large fruit bat.

Having arrived early to my Portland book launch, I was busy circulating through the store, handing out bookmarks and doing my best to wrangle people for my reading.From hipsters to the elderly, they all got the pitch.Most folks were friendly enough, took a bookmark, raised a convincingly interested eyebrow.A mother of two small children bought a copy of my novel even though she couldn’t stay for the reading.She seemed so excited to buy it she didn’t bother to open the cover.

I was getting down to the wire, maybe five bookmarks left, when I noticed him.In retrospect, he was a little odd, his skin a coppery hue, as if he’d been the victim of a cheap drugstore self tanner. His hair was almost Mel Gibsonian in its artful but undeniable use of hair plugs. But there was nothing overtly bizarre about him as he stood around, fondling a copy of The Help.

“Excuse me,” I asked.“Did you get a free bookmark?”

He took it cautiously and turned it over.

“We’re giving these out in honor of my book launch.In just about ten minutes, I’ll be reading and signing copies of my novel, Bone Worship.”

That’s all I said.I’ve replayed this moment many times.I don’t think I imagined it.

He glanced up at me, a sly smile slipping over his face.“Bone Worship?”

“Yep.It’s a cross-cultural story of a father and daughter’s complex relationship.”

He ran his thumb down the glossy surface of the bookmark. “Really.”He looked like a man who has just become aware of the vigorous advances of a barfly.

“Yeah, so, we’re starting in ten minutes, over there by the podium.” It was getting awkward, but I was still in cheerful sales mode.“We’d love to have you.”

He gave me the look again, carefully sliding the bookmark into the pocket of his coat like a calling card.           “O-kay..”

I’m not sure if he bought a copy, though I doubt it.A few minutes later as I was about to go up to read, I saw him slink out of the store, one gloved hand on the door.

I didn’t think much of it at the time.After all, Portland, like most cities, certainly has its share of weirdos, even if the unique brand of Portland eccentric screams about government-engineered swine flu while riding a unicycle in the dark over a drawbridge.The first reading was a success, and I drove back to Eugene to prepare for the kick-off of my book tour.

A few weeks later, I was positioned at a table inside the front of a Barnes & Noble while my husband did the circulating, catching and accosting patrons who had managed to slip by while I was greeting customers and signing copies.Once again, all was going well, save for the woman who used one of our bookmarks to openly pick her teeth.I sold nine copies in the first hour and nine more in the next. We were wrapping things up before the next author’s turn at the table when my husband approached a man in his sixties and proffered a bookmark.

“The author’s in the store today,” my husband said, “signing copies of her novel, Bone Worship.”

The guy squinted and sucked in part of his mouth.He was normal looking, of the man-who-doesn’t-read-but-accompanies-his-wife-to-buy-Marley & Me sort.Which is to say he bore a slight resemblance to Vincent D’Onofrio in Men in Black, post-alien body invasion.“Bone Worship, you say.” It was a tone that can only adequately be described by replacing “bone” with “shit” and “worship” with “sandwich.”

“That’s right.It’s a funny and poignant story about an Iranian immigrant and his American daughter, about cultural identity and growing up…”

“Oh, I know what it is,” the man said, and not in a way that suggested he was familiar with my oeuvre.

Around this time, my husband began to suspect something was amiss, this easily confirmed by the man’s disgusted look and refusal to engage in further discussion with either one of us. We were the weirdos.He sniffed disdainfully as he passed the table.

Now I was intrigued.I went home and Googled my title.I know what you’re thinking.Yeah, I Googled it in the beginning, when I started the novel, just, you know, to make sure someone else hadn’t already used it, but that was a while ago, and nothing came up. Sure, there was the occasional mention in a science journal, relics, articles on elephants examining the bones of their ancestors, all stuff that had served as an inspiration for the main themes of the book.But this time, there was something not quite so literary.

Big man wanted for long, deep, throbbing bone worship.

I wished it was a joke.An exception.Something.But oh so unfortunately, there were a lot of somethings. Turns out there were many people who wanted to engage in bone worship, and not the cross cultural, Iranian-American, funny-poignant, coming-of-age variety.

Early on during conversations with my agent and editor about the final revisions, we talked about changing the title.“Bone Worship, yeah.I’m not so sure about it.It’s like a murder mystery,” my agent said.It was true that often when I told people the name of my novel, they excitedly declared their love of James Patterson.After I politely corrected them, told them it was actually “literary fiction,” their reactions were the kind that can only adequately be explained if I replace “literary” with “shit” and “fiction” with “sandwich.”

“What about My Father’s Hastegar,” my editor suggested, referring to the Farsi word for arranged marriage.Too clunky, I thought.“Or, wait!” she said.“My Father’s Bone Worship.”

My agent nixed that one.“It sounds… Kind of dirty, don’t you think?”

I didn’t like it either, mostly because it made me think of a Father Knows Best/CSI hybrid television show, but back then, I didn’t quite understand why it seemed dirty to her.

Of course that was then, this is… porn.

Perhaps most bizarre was being the last person in on the joke.Hey, I’ve seen my fair share of kinky movies.I read Tropic of Cancer when I was fifteen.I watched all of HBO’s Real Sex series, and that was some seriously pervy stuff.Hell, I’ve got an old VHS of Last Tango in Paris that I’ve had since college, but truthfully I admire it more for the filmmaking than the butter.I like to think I know my way around the sexual lexicon.But apparently not.Apparently, it’s the sixty-somethings who know their way around worshipping bones.Betty White will probably use it in her next SNL monologue.

I wish I could say it ended at Barnes & Noble, but it didn’t.Soon afterward a group on Goodreads nominated my book for their “taboo” category, kinky books that push the envelope, with a special list for those that deal with incest. (FYI, people, Jasmine Fahroodhi does not, I repeat, NOT, get down with her father.)And here I always wanted to be nominated for something.

Not long after my book launch in Portland, my mother called an elderly female florist to arrange a flower delivery.“Have the card read: Congratulations on your Bone Worship.”Why she left out the word “book” is anyone’s guess.

The old lady balked. “Bone Worship??? What kind of thing is that?You have to understand, this is a family business.”

Eventually my mother managed to convince her she was talking about a literary novel and not a smut film, but the damage was done.The phone conversation unnerved her.She breathed heavily, even stammered a little. “Do you think maybe bone worship means something…”Here she paused for a long time.“…else?”

Thank God, she was innocent.

“I doubt it,” I said.“I’m sure she was just confused.Maybe she thought you said something else.”

This seemed to work.“Yes, that’s probably it,” she said, her fears assuaged.“Anyway, I’m so proud of you.”

“Thanks, Mom.”I didn’t tell her that when the flowers arrived, the delivery guy looked down at the card and smiled, several seconds too long.

TAGS: , , , ,

Elizabeth Eslami Elizabeth Eslami is the author of the novel Bone Worship (Pegasus). Her work has appeared in over a dozen journals, including G.W. Review, Minnesota Review, Crab Orchard Review, Matador Travel, and The Millions. She’s currently at work on a collection of short stories and a second novel. You can visit her website at www.elizabetheslami.com

49 responses to “No Virginia, It’s Not About Porn”

  1. Cynthia Hawkins says:

    Loved this piece! I am among the worst when it comes to unintentional double-entendre titles (just changed the title to my TNB essay this morning for this very reason, matter of fact).

    Great description: “After I politely corrected them, told them it was actually ‘literary fiction,’ their reactions were the kind that can only adequately be explained if I replace ‘literary’ with ‘shit’ and ‘fiction’ with ‘sandwich.'” So funny.

    Thanks for sharing the behind-the-scenes experience of titling _Bone Worship_. And for the record, I think the people misjudging this phrase should be more embarrassed than you!

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks, Cynthia! I agree, but you’d be surprised how many non-deviant people (writers included, though I guess there’s an argument to be made that all writers are deviants) misjudged the title.

      By the way, I love “If the Shoe Fits…” Except now I’ll be spending the rest of the day trying to figure out what you were going to title it!

  2. Maybe it’s because, after Growing Pains introduced Richard Stabone’s nickname, “boner” fell out of vernacular usage as slang for a guy’s hard dick? I know it was really popular slang years ago.

    Funny, too, as there is no bone in the penis.

    I don’t think “hard dick” would have been the first thing I thought of if I saw Bone Worship as a title. It would probably depend on the cover. Actually, that’s not true; knowing the propensity of the publishing industry and its love for racy, salacious, and lascivious titles (see: Diablo Cody and Jenna Jameson), I probably would think porn, if only because–at least in my head–porn is easier to sell than “funny, poignant story about Iranian immigrant and his American daughter.”

    • Elizabeth says:

      Will, the fact that this entire misunderstanding could be traced back to Growing Pains seems cosmically unfair. I would make a joke about Boner, but alas, he is no longer with us. Hopefully, however, Alan Thicke is still fair game.

      And I would think you’re quite right about porn outselling literary fiction. Though it’s embarrassing as hell, if someone buys my book because they think it’s porn, I will happily take their money. Besides, I figure most stores’ return policies do not include incorrectly assuming a book is about hard dicks. Though you never know.

  3. Carl D'Agostino says:

    Teaching Father
    From Bud to Blossom in America
    Our American Odyssey
    From East to West
    Inhaling Apple Pie
    We Ran from Iran
    On Becoming American

  4. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Well out of curiosity, I googled and the good news is that your book has now pwned results for “Bone Worship”. So maybe you’ve actually done a good deed, ensuring that at least a few teens, surfing for jollies, will instead be tempted by high literature.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Uche,
      Yay! Fingers crossed that it stays that way. Occasionally I’ll get a Google alert with both versions, which is especially hilarious (and awkward) when one is a book review and the other is, well, you get the picture.

  5. Becky says:

    Ha! Hysterical. I’m totally going to go buy your book today — no, not because of the title. 😉

  6. Marni Grossman says:

    “Turns out there were many people who wanted to engage in bone worship, and not the cross cultural, Iranian-American, funny-poignant, coming-of-age variety.”

    So. Funny. But frankly, I’d much rather engage in the cross cultural, Iranian-American, funny-poignant, coming-of-age variety bone worship. Sounds much more fun.

  7. Jessica Blau says:

    VERY funny! You know I’ve had this theory about the word BONE in book titles: put it in and the book will be a success. (Rule of the Bone, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, The Lovely Bones, The Farming of Bones, etc. etc. etc.) I tried and tried and tried to figure out titles for my book using BONE. My family teases me about this and they all came up with BONE titles for my last book (The Summer of Naked Swim Parties): THe Summer of Bone Naked Swim Parties, The Bone Dry Summer of Naked Swim Parties. We’ve even tried to work BONE into the book that’s coming out next February (Drinking Closer to Home): Drinking Bones Closer to Home, etc. Anyway, I think it’s a great title and I think you were right to stick with it.

    Did you buy the domain name? Poor Katie Crouch. The domain name for her FABULOUS new book, Men and Dogs was already taken by someone else. It’s horrifying.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Jessica,
      I think both of your titles are perfect! (And I look forward to reading The Summer of Naked Swim Parties.) I came across an article somewhere recently with a list of the worst titles in recent fiction. Mostly they included incredibly vague and/or long ones — won’t repeat any here –but I was holding my breath for fear someone would mention mine, if not for the porn business then for the fact that there are so many books with BONE in the title. I had the title from the beginning, seven years ago, but I guess it doesn’t matter once you’re in a sea of similar sounding ones. Here’s hoping your theory of success proves true.

      I didn’t buy the domain name because I used my own name for the website. Now that you mention it, I’m a little worried to see if someone else has…

    • Matt says:

      The Summer of Naked Bone Parties.

  8. Alison Aucoin says:

    If it were my book I’d be the last one in on the joke too!

  9. Greg Olear says:

    A funny story, and well told. I particularly liked the line about the Last Tango and the butter.

    I did the image search Google. It’s all you. I stopped on page five. No male full-frontal nudity, but a cover of the St Elsewhere DVD set, for some reason…

    At least the art department did their job, and the cover doesn’t feature shirtless twin Fabios.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks, Greg! Agreed on the cover, though someone told me that the woman’s coy smile suggests she’s into kinky stuff.

      St. Elsewhere?!? Really? Hmm.. Makes me wonder what Howie Mandel is into these days.

  10. Erika Rae says:

    Too too funny. The way you told this was hilarious, too. Great pacing. I’m interested in picking up your book now, too – and not because of the title, which I never would have gotten either. It’s kind of a long story, but let’s just say I’m interested in things Persian. I hope you sell a million copies of Bone Worship!

  11. Jordan Ancel says:

    Elizabeth, I simultaneously have my heart go out to you for the confusion and possible distress you must have felt, and I’m laughing my ass off.

    I just love how sincerely innocent you and your husband are. Alas, the world is full of pervs, or people who are but pretend not to be.

    Perhaps you could sell a ton of copies just by a simple banner ad on some adult sites. No synopsis, just the title. You’d make a fortune. And maybe once received by the customer, they might find it refreshing that it isn’t what they thought. You might inadvertently enlighten a whole demographic that would otherwise be impenetrable (no pun intended… really).

    Great story. I look forward to reading your book very soon.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Very glad to amuse, Jordan. I’d totally implement your plan if it meant I’d make a fortune. However, who is to say that the customers wouldn’t be enraged when they realized they’d been tricked into reading multi-culti literary crap and come after me like a medieval mob wielding dildos?

  12. Simon Smithson says:

    This is very much like the Arrested Development episode about Tobias’s book, The Man Inside Me.

    Oh, Elizabeth.

    I’m sorry. I’m going to be laughing too hard for too long to be of any use as a commenter on this one.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Simon,

      HA!!! I’m kicking myself now for having never seen Arrested Development. That’s hilarious.

  13. Matt says:

    I’ll say this right up front: I’d probably flag anyone wearing calf-skin gloves and a long black coat as a potential pervert….especially with the hair plugs. Sounds exactly like the kind of guy we’d find loitering around the Exotica section when I worked at B&N. I’m genuinely surprised he didn’t stay for the reading.

    This made me laugh out loud several times, but I think my personal favorite is “the unique brand of Portland eccentric screams about government-engineered swine flu while riding a unicycle in the dark over a drawbridge.” A very apt description of a few individuals I know who’ve moved to (or come from) the Portland area.

    I think Bone Worship is a great title, myself. It provokes all sorts of questions and answers none. I’ve got a birthday coming up soon, and am going to order myself a box of books by TNB authors from Amazon; I think this’ll be among them.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Matt,

      I’m glad you like the title! And I think I’ll copy your box of books idea, even though I don’t have a birthday coming up. Screw it. I’ve experienced my first book related embarrassment, so I deserve to treat myself.

      Also, thanks for the kudos on that line. It was my favorite too. And mostly true, except I left out the fact that he was also spinning a plate. I figured no one would buy that part.

      • Matt says:

        I’ve think by this point in my life I’ve been conditioned to just expect anyone riding a unicycle to be juggling or spinning implements of some sort. That seems part and parcel to the entire experience.

  14. Claire King says:

    Elizabeth, you have me in tears of laughter. The thought of your entire town now writing you down as some kind of…well, Bone Worshipper. Your write up is a gem.
    Here I go to the Amazon wishlist…

    • Elizabeth says:

      Claire,

      Yay! Tears of laughter = success. I’m not sure if the entire town thinks I’m a pervert, but if so, they’d probably be cool with that. I live in Eugene, after all. A town that celebrates slugs and naked old men riding double-decker bikes. 😉

  15. Art Edwards says:

    It a truth universally acknowledged that it’s Beavis and Butthead’s world. We’re just in it.

    Great piece.

  16. ha! I read the title and thought, “Yes! Bone Worship, beautiful!” because I love bones. I worship bones. I have the word “bone” in bones tattooed on my arm. I have committed bone worship often. Thank you for the laugh. Now I have to go buy the book.

  17. […] “No, Virginia, It’s Not about Porn” […]

  18. Eve Paludan says:

    Hilarious! Thanks for the morning giggles.

  19. Andrew Nonadetti says:

    I am so sorry both for this experience and the fact that I can’t stop smirking. You’ve inspired me to do two things. First, I’m getting rid of my black leather trenchcoat, just in case. Second, I need to find better names for my novels about an interior designer’s search for the perfect floor covering (“Shag Me Roughly From Behind”) and a man’s struggle to carry on his family’s plumbing business even after his crippling auto accident (“Laying Pipe ’til I Can’t Walk”).

    • Elizabeth says:

      Ha!!! Smirk away, Andrew. I say keep the trenchcoat, as long as you’re not wearing calf-skin gloves at the same time. They were orange gloves, and he never removed them, two details that made him creepy. With or without the hair plugs.

      PS. Your titles are worthy successors to Arrested Development’s “The Man Inside Me.”

  20. David Rocklin says:

    Really enjoyed this piece! Particularly the wonderful conjuring of Portland’s literary scene as viewed from the signing table. My publisher (Hawthorne) is in Portland, and when my own novel comes out (The Luminist – April 2011), I hope to find myself in the same bookstores! I’ll keep an eye out for the gloved man.

    I haven’t had my novel mistaken for porn…yet…but I did get a couple of inquiries as to whether it’s Christian. I directed them to the publisher’s website for the synopsis and that was the last I heard from them.

    • Elizabeth says:

      I think you’re probably safe, David. Though you shouldn’t take my word for it. On a side note, when I’m doing signings, I always get asked where the Christian section is. I may start responding, “How would I know? I write porn.”

      Good luck with The Luminist! Hope you get to do a reading at Powells. They’re fabulous.

  21. Fawn says:

    You know, we publish erotica and I’m still going to have to look that one up.

    Them 60-year olds are kinda pervy, ain’t they?

  22. Gregory Messina says:

    Very entertaining, Elizabeth! Glad you’re with Pegasus…they’re good people.

  23. Wow. I cannot believe an agent and publisher would not shoot down this title…guess it would have been hard to do. This first thing I thought when I saw the title was, “Who would name their book THAT?” Good luck. Maybe the attention will help sales or lead to an unexpected career! Just make sure not to title the sequel “Snatch Whisperer.”

    Scott Nicholson

    • Elizabeth says:

      Well, it’s interesting because this TNB piece has served as a kind of litmus test for people’s interpretation of “bone worship.” Scientifically minded people think of elephants, historians think of relics, and perverts think of penises.
      Uh-oh, Scott.

  24. Hey, there’s no shame in being a pervert, is there?…(looks around)…(everyone looks away)…

    Scott

  25. […] ELIZABETH ESLAMI learns about titular double entendre. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *